hilltop learning stories

Follow Up Questions from Hilltop Webinar

This week Educa had a chance to sit down with Mike Browne (he/him), Senior Manager of Community Engagement and Naoko Armstrong (she/her), Educator at Hilltop Children’s Center and Educator Institute in Seattle, Washington on the ancestral lands of the Duwamish Tribe. Hilltop is a leader in progressive early childhood education and this year is hosting the annual S.A.L.S.A. Learning Story Conference.

Recently, Educa hosted a webinar featuring Mike and his colleagues, “Learning Stories Lead Teaching,” a 75-minute workshop conducted by the Hilltop CC team. You can check out the replay here. It was clear from the participant’s questions in the chat box that people want to know more about a “Day in the Life at Hilltop.”

The Clock on the Wall

As any early childhood educator will tell you, time is a precious commodity. Many viewers were interested in learning how Hilltop teachers find the time for planning and writing learning stories.

In a typical academic year, Hilltop teachers have three-four hours of planning time per week. With three educators per classroom of 15 children, one teacher can spend an hour planning while the remaining two teachers teach and supervise children.

Not all planning time is equal. Hilltop teachers such as Naoko will use planning time for curriculum planning, contacting families, and other classroom duties. While she can typically contact families electronically, sometimes families appreciate a phone call, especially if the matter is urgent.

Communication is Key

In addition to the weekly planning time, teachers have an hour of meeting time weekly with their mentor teacher. These weekly meetings cover a range of topics including curriculum, planning, parent communications, and class setup.

Mike Browne explains that mentor teachers play a critical role in the well-being of the school. Bridging the gap between teachers and administration, mentor teachers can voice the opinion of the teaching staff and keep everyone on the same page in terms of school goals and mission. Likewise, Mike Browne’s role as community engagement manager ensures the school maintains a connection with the community. “Like many other independent schools” Mike says, “we often keep and play by ourselves.

On one side, it allows us to be flexible in our thinking as there is less red tape and hoops we have to jump through and on the flip side, it also means we are more prone to gatekeeping and hoarding information. My role allows me to bring a different perspective to the community, one that aims to incite speculative possibilities, while also allowing me to bring information back into our community for us to learn from, to sit and dissect.”

These critical communication and engagement roles help Hilltop maintain relevant and realistic goals with the voice of all constituents: children, families, teachers, and community.

Is it a Story or is it an Observation?

As Naoko explains, the two “relate” but serve different purposes. In a typical month, Naoko will take many notes on children, groups of children, and on her teaching practice. These observations and reflections may not necessarily turn into a story. Still, these observations and notes serve an important purpose: they inform her practice and help her gain insights into the children she teaches.

Naoko explained she takes a LOT of notes and “maybe ten percent of these notes become a learning story in the end.”

Observations are the basis for learning stories but an observation in itself is not a learning story.

Observations tend to be more clinical and in some cases, observations directly target specific development. Learning stories rely on the subjective voice of the narrator and include insights into feeling, character, and learning style. Observations are typically associated with an objective voice, describing the child’s behaviors with little analysis or opinion.

To learn more about writing learning stories click here.

Your Voice and Style

As a second language learner, Naoko said she struggled at first with writing learning stories. Her colleagues who had been at Hilltop for many years wrote lengthy and well-written stories. She said it took some time for her to develop her voice and style. She suggests including photos to capture meaning and not focus on length. A great way to start is to describe the setting and your observation followed by your insights into the learning and “what’s next” for the child in terms of planning future learning experiences.

Naoko explains that her style of writing had to feed her love for working with children. Rather than feel stressed about the length of her story, she developed her own style. Her learning stories are impactful, concise, and include the child’s voice.

Mike shared that the style and structure of learning stories comes up a lot in team meeting discussions. “I personally don’t want to say ‘here is the structure, here is how you do it.’” He explains that “It is so important that in storytelling that we have our own voice and style. And we above all need to feel comfortable as storytellers.”

The administration at Hilltop avoids prescriptive language around style and format of learning stories so that people can develop their own writing voice and approach.

Advice to New Teachers

Mike suggests focusing your process on three main lenses in learning story writing: cultural, pedagogical, and developmental. With a cultural lens, start writing notes around what the community is in your room. How are their different ways of being? What strengths are being brought to this community?

Pedagogically, he reminds teachers to examine the environment. Look at the play and work that happens with children in your space. If possible, look at the environment from different perspectives including at eye level with children and removed as a “fly on the wall.”

The developmental lens challenges the teacher to see the whole child in terms of their development- not just academically, but in a personal and spiritual sense as well. Mike believes that if you can view a child from these three lenses and jot down some notes, “the story will come to you. The three lenses give birth to a story.”

Story Media

Naoko loves including video in her learning stories to help bring her stories to life. As she explains, “videos capture the feeling of the moment.”

Currently, Mike is exploring ways to communicate learning stories through different media. He wonders, “Do learning stories have to be written on paper?” Mike directs a podcast at Hilltop and is interested in challenging our concept of learning stories, finding ways to incorporate oral traditions, recording and video.

Hilltop is hosting a virtual Learning Stories conference in a series, running from April to June, 2021. Learn more here.

Learn more about SALSA here.

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